The British contribution to the Gulf war, the Cold War rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher, and the fresh memory of the Falklands war remind us of the military propensities of the British state.footnote Yet Britain has not had conscription since the fifties, its generals keep out of political life, and its armed forces have been held to suffer from amateurism and neglect. Memories of the interwar period still inform contemporary perceptions, and the spirit of appeasement is frequently perceived to be a live danger. In this article I will question conventional pictures of the British state and its military policies shared by Right and Left alike. I will show that the war-fighting sector of the state has been well funded and deeply suffused with the scientific, technological and industrial spirit. There was a good reason for this: the ‘British way in warfare’, which I label ‘liberal militarism’, has relied on technology; and creating this technology required a technically expert state machine. I will argue, furthermore, that Britain’s war-fighting strategy is ‘modern’: Britain’s weapons have been directed not only at the armed forces of enemy nations, but also at their civil populations and industry. Britain is not so much a ‘caricature of an exterminist formation’,footnote1 rather it has pioneered a distinctively modern militarism.

Why Britain pursued such a policy is easily explained: Britain was, after all, the first industrial nation, and the first scientific nation; the two distinctive elements in nineteenth-century culture were political economy and natural science. Just as important was the fact that from the end of the nineteenth century Britain was challenged, industrially, commercially and militarily, by nations which were, actually or potentially, absolutely larger and thus more powerful in each of these three spheres. To defend itself, and to maintain control over its markets, trade routes and empire, Britain developed military and diplomatic alliances—with France and Russia before 1914; through the League of Nations in the interwar years; and above all through nato since 1945. But Britain also had to rely on its comparative advantage in warfighting technology to sustain this. Why Britain’s policy of high-tech militarism is neglected in the vast literature on the British state and its industrial and scientific policies is not so easily explained.

Both the military and war do figure in accounts of the British state. Perry Anderson, for example, has tried to integrate British defence policy into his explanation of British decline. He notes three ‘absences’ in the Victorian state, one of which was the lack of a mass army. The War Office and Admiralty,footnote2 he argued, were not ‘the controlling centre of the state structure as a whole’. This role was played by the laissez faire Treasury.footnote3 Because the British State was not defeated in war or revolution, it retained its Victorian character: the British state ‘constructed to contain social conflict at home and police an empire abroad, has proved impotent to redress economic decline. The nightwatchman state acquired traits of the welfare officer, but never of the engineer. Sustained and structural intervention in the economy was the one task for which its organic liberalism was entirely ill-suited.’footnote4 Anderson drew much of his evidence from Correlli Barnett’s influential account of British scientific, technical and industrial performance in the Second World War, which is probably the most interconnected analysis of war, state and economy ever attempted for Britain.footnote5 Barnett argued that the British war economy, contrary to the prevailing view, performed very badly: even in its greatest emergency the state failed to modernize itself. Instead it launched an expensive programme of welfare reform which would dominate the postwar state and postwar economy, with disastrous consequences.

The traditional view of the effect of war, and especially of the Second World War, on the British state and its relationship to the economy is rather different and very important to Britain’s self-image. It is that the British state transformed itself, and as a result the British war economy was uniquely successful. Of course there are many pictures of why the wartime state was successful: we have only to think of the Right’s adulation of Churchillian militarism and of Harold Wilson’s invocation of the Dunkirk Spirit.footnote6 For socialists the war showed that democratic planning was possible, despite Oskar Lange’s damning comparison between state socialist planning and capitalist war economies. For Michael Barratt Brown, for example, the wartime discontinuity is important as a key example of the possibilities that existed and exist for the transformation of the state, and to argue against Anderson’s explanation of why the state is as it is.footnote7 But it is important to note that the contrast with the Anderson/Barnett view of the British state is not as great as first appears: there is little disagreement over the nature of the British state in peacetime.

I will suggest that both these views are misleading, and show that ‘liberal militarism’ represents an important but neglected continuity in the history of the British state. The successes, and failures, of wartime armaments production are due not just to the peculiar circumstances of wartime, but also to the long-term policies of the state for the development of military technology. I will argue that the military sector needs to be distinguished from the civil sector in both war and peace, and that in the military sector there has been no indifference to science, technology or industry. The state machinery for armament supply has had, from the Victorian era, traits of the engineer. I am not arguing that the Admiralty, the War Office and the later service and supply departments controlled the state. Instead I suggest that the central bodies of the state, including the Treasury, have pursued a policy of ‘liberal militarism’ which required the creation of ‘technocratic’ departments of state. I do not deny that important changes were made to these departments during the two world wars, or that war required the incorporation of labour and the mobilization of the whole nation. Yet I do argue that these changes resulted not from a failure of these departments to be modern and ‘technocratic’ in peacetime, but rather that the particular ‘technocratic’ programme they followed proved inadequate to the wars actually being fought. In the postwar period both Labour and Conservative governments have pursued an expensive strategy of keeping Britain’s military industries at the leading edge.